Monday, October 29, 2012

Testing Technology

Below is the statement I presented to my Board of Education on Tuesday, October 23, 2012.

Working in Guilderland is something I am proud of.  Traveling in various educational circles, I came quickly to learn that my district had a reputation as a leader.  For years we hosted the Summer Writing Institute and helped to enrich the writing instruction of not only our faculty but of our colleagues across the Capital Region.  I always knew that I worked in a district that was forward thinking because I was nourished and supported to teach in a way that showed me to how to be a reflective educator and also encouraged me to strive to use methods that didn’t just follow the standards but asked kids to read and write for real purposes.  Instilling in them the idea that it is a life-long process and not something you have to simply do for school.

Now I realize that the world we live in is one of reform and mandates that are, sadly, out of our control.  But I believe like in any situation where one may feel powerless, there is always a way to stay true to who you are and try to enact change.  In adopting the NWEAs, I feel we have stepped off our original path.  This is not the trail we once blazed.  Rather it feels we chose to fall in line with what other districts had selected despite the less restrictive options offered to us. We could have chosen, like our colleagues in Bethlehem did, to create our own local assessments.  We even had the option of utilizing our New York state exam data and creating student learning objectives to meet what was required of us.  Here, students would have only to take one standardized exam and saved us hours of lost instructional time, not to mention money.

Either of the latter options would have avoided the use of computers as tools of testing instead of tools for learning.  Faculty has been unable to utilize the computer labs while all of our students are cycled through to complete the NWEAs.  My students’ work on their memoir pieces has been interrupted, as we have to suspend our work and wait for the testing to end.  This unit culminates in students creating a movie of their written work.  A powerful example of how writing, music, images and voice can make what normally is just another writing piece into a lesson in multi-media literacy.  Sacrificing this aspect of the unit is simply not what is best for students, and so my students and I will wait for the testing to end.

In an effort to do what is right for our students, I am here to advocate for a different direction.  A road that we have laid in front of us.  It will require the leadership and vision of who we have always been as a district in order to move us forward.  I am referring to digital portfolio assessments.  Instead of asking students to sit twice a year for two hours in front of a computer answering multiple-choice questions, we could be showing them the power of technology and exposing them to skills that they truly need to be college and career ready. 

This is a trail we are, I believe, ready to blaze.  My colleagues and I are already taking the initial steps even though it isn’t mandated but because it echoes that Guilderland philosophy of offering the very best instruction to our students.  Last year we were given the tools to move our students further into the 21st century skills that our district holds as the highest priority. 

With Demian’s leadership we launched the use of our secure Google cloud, which gives us access to a myriad of applications to enhance student learning.  I was able realize my own personal goal as students created their own digital portfolio websites.  They displayed and reflected on their work over the course of an entire year.  They had a place for their digital work products that simply never fit in to our current “Blue Folder” system.  With guidance, students were able to articulate their strengths, weaknesses and goals.  This allowed me to better individualize and differentiate their instruction.  Students utilized technology to demonstrate their entire learning process instead of just a one-time performance.  Portfolios create a space for students in assessment as they become more responsible for their learning rather than a passive test taker.  And in doing so, they found more motivation, more self-confidence and satisfaction in their performance that a number simply cannot produce.  Students began to compete with themselves rather than with each other.

Looking into the future to graduation, our students could walk out armed with true evidence of their learning.  Something to show at a college or job interview to demonstrate their skills, potential and personal goals.  The value of this portfolio simply can’t be compared to a list of test scores.

Portfolios are the kinds of learning opportunities that those who attend private schools are offered.  Private schools that are not shackled to the state and federal mandates.  Private schools like the ones our State Education Commissioner’s children attend instead of our local public schools.  Let’s lead our kids into the future, take advantage of the free tools we have at our finger tips and become once again a fearless leader in our area as we weather this educational storm.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Mud Bonding

On Tuesday, our team traveled to Voorheesville to lend a hand to the Patroon Land Farm, which provides produce for the Regional Food Bank.  This trip serves as our team bonding event in order to bring all 115 students together to socialize and give back to the community.  This trip was especially important this year since many of our students had to switch houses.  We hoped that this trip would help kids get to know one another in a shared experience.  And oh what an experience it was!

Upon our arrival, we gathered in the barn so that students could hear from one of the farmers as he explained the work we would be doing.  He also gave some important history about the land, farm and purpose of their work.  There were two important jobs that they needed our assistance with, so we divided up and got to work.

A third of the team entered the greenhouse, where they were picking peppers, boxing potatoes and, luckily for them, keeping warm.  The rest of us made our way out to the fields, where we were asked to harvest rainbow Swiss chard.  We had to break the stalks down low and gather them up into a bunch and bound them with a rubber band.  Seemed like a simple enough of a job.  Little did we know what awaited us...lots and lots of mud.

As one of the teachers who was helping and supervising, I assumed that upon hearing the directions from the farmer who accompanied us that we needed to avoid the muddy trenches and use the the ones on the outer rows that were more dry, that this was clearly understood.  It never occurred to me that students would actually want to trudge through the mud and the muck.  Oh how wrong I was!

One student after another blithely walked into the mud pits and looked up in astonishment as they discovered themselves submerged and stuck.  One student earnestly asked if this was "quick mud" and was that why people were getting stuck.  It quickly became apparent that some in our group had little to no experience with mud.  There were others though that, like the pigs we had to avoid on our drive in, reveled in the mud and the mess it made of them.

I will be honest that my patience quickly ran out as one more student became stuck, as another shoe was lost, as another pair of hands were dipped into the muddy pits.  I underestimated the lure of the mud to a 12 year-old.  Silly teacher!

But as I look back on that day, I think the mud helped to accomplish exactly what the purpose of the trip was:  team bonding.  Peers were going after each other to rescue them from their muddy fate regardless if it put themselves in the same peril.  And while it was the messiest field trip I have ever been on, it was also the one where students were the most dependent on each other.  And at the end of the day, we all learned a great deal about each other.

 Please visit our Hia7A All the Way website to view the entire photo album of our trip!